Before I was a business and compliance consultant, I spent over 10 years working in public bodies and government. I have administered hundreds of grant applications in my career and eventually, I ended up designing and updating grant and award policies, forms, submittals and reporting-back processes.
So when I began consulting in 2017, one of the service offerings I listed was “grant writing.” When really, I should list it as “grant application consulting.”
Over the past few years, I have advised many clients and would-be-applicants on the ins-and-outs of grant applications… and probably scared them away. Why did I scare them? Well, after a quick consultation I could already identify if an applicant was either ready to apply or had no chance in hell in getting any funds.
Having given much of the same advice over the years and feeling the need to share these pieces of advice with my fellow entrepreneurs, here are my 6 Tips on Great Grant Writing. Don’t be scared, I’m here to help you be prepared.
Side note: Most of this advice is applicable to new businesses and entrepreneurs — but I’m also not just talking about grants here either: this advice can be for Requests for Funding Proposals (RFPs), tenders, recognition/award applications and just about anything that requires words about your business to be submitted to a jury that would award some sort of monetary incentive.
First off, when you want to hire an individual to write grant applications or seek help in doing them — make sure you have time to do the work. You will still need to deliver documents, financials and attachments to them, so be mindful of timelines and don’t expect them to make things up for you. Only you know your business best — so be ready to work closely with your grant writer.
As a personal rule of thumb, if the deadline is this week, I wouldn’t accept that project and usually require at least 1 month. This is to ensure I can get all required materials and information, verify and seek approvals, and then proofread before submitting a few days before the actual deadline (more about that later).
1. Know Your Eligibility
Grants are funds that you don’t need to pay back, right? So what’s the catch?
The catch is eligibility. These caveats are carefully woven into eligibility requirements so money isn’t just handed out to any group or business who can establish financial need. Before you can apply for grants or even research which ones to consider, you need to know the following:
What type of business are you? Sole-proprietor, incorporated, not-for-profit, charity, etc.
Are you legitimate? Are you legitimate in your local community with a business licence, do you have staff on payroll (not cash), do you have annual financial statements and up-to-date books? Do you have a visible presence and can be searched online or social media as a legitimate business?
Are you insured? Liability, workplace insurance, director (if you have a board), privacy, etc. are all very important to grant administrators.
Are you in compliance? This is also another way of saying “in-good-standing”, and many grant administrators require you are an active member or are in good standing with them another third party. This weeds out many would-be applicants from wasting their time in the early application stages.
For point #1, what I am saying is — do you have your ducks in a row? Grant application forms will ask these questions in many different ways and you can’t get around them or provide answers later. These questions are the first level to pass before your application is considered.
Trust me, if you have a grant in mind that you don’t meet the basic eligibility requirements or you think you “might be the exception” or you write “available upon request” in a field — grant administrators immediately file your application under G.
p.s. G is for “Garbage.”
2. Apply for the Cause, Not Just the Cash
What is the purpose of your business/organization? Do you have your values, mission and vision carefully crafted and ready?
Are you applying because you want the money, and then forming a project or work plans around the grant? While this has worked in limited situations, many grant administrators can sniff out a fraud right from the first page of an application.
Almost all grant applications will first ask about the purpose of your organization, and then the purpose of your grant application. If your organization or project can’t be searched, verified or backed-up in some way, the administrators may do further digging and request more information. If they can’t find anything or you don’t provide it — again, they will file it under G.
Grants usually exist to serve some greater purpose like environmental, social impact, local economic growth, etc. It’s the sad truth, but optics matter when it comes to most grant administrators. They want to “tick off” some boxes about their contributions so the last thing they want is to award funds to anything ill-conceived, unfounded or unsharable. Sadly, optics do matter, no matter the cause.
Here’s an interesting example: One year a grant committee I worked with doubled the ask from a local quilting group because they gave out free ice pack covers to the injured or blankets to those who lost homes in fires, and then cut funding to a sports clinic group because they were already sponsored by a luxury SUV company and arrived in new cars. This would have been avoided if the wealthy looking applicant spent more time on their application, rather than assuming the funds were already theirs. Ouch.
So with optics in mind, the more formalized, verifiable and professional your application is, the better! Don’t forget to the read the room — as in, know what you’re up against or who your biggest competition is. If you can picture who is a shoe in for the grant money, then your job is to make your application just as good if not better than what you think their application would look like. To start, your organization’s purpose, mission and values should align with the grant organizations in some way, which now brings me to point #3:
3. Seek Out All Grants — Pick 10 — Apply to 3
There are thousands of grants out there. You can’t apply to them all, so don’t sweat it. The key is picking which ones are best for you and which ones are realistically achievable.
Therefore, after you have identified your criteria and your purpose and see the impact (and optics) of what your organization is doing you need to identify the most practical and useful grants to focus on.
Pick your top 10 and then review their application forms. Some will vary in length in requirements, proposals and attachments while some might be identical to the others. Once you have had a feel for the feasible applications, plan to only apply to 3 of them.
By narrowing your focus you will save time, energy and stress on having to have so many documents completed at the same time. Some ways to I like to narrow a potential list are:
- Review previous recipients and award amounts
- Review previous projects and identify what trends you see in successful proposals
- Review social media and news releases of grant administrators and how they share their decisions
- Review all time commitments relating to the application (is a presentation, team meeting, additional report, or report-back needed later on?)
- If you know any of the previous grant recipients, call them up and ask them what the application and administration process was like
4. Know Your Answers Before They Ask
Now that you have completed your grant applications, many require further information before awarding funds. Whether it is a team meeting, a presentation or submitting financials and receipts — you need to have these things ready and prepared.
A great way to be prepared is knowing simple answers like the following (if they aren’t asked in your application). Many of these are asked in the form of “if your grant is successful/approved…”
- how many people/places/things will be impacted/improved?
- what is the timeline of implementation to completion of your project?
- how will you thank and share info about the grant administrator?
- will you be relying on this grant annually or is this a 1-time project?
- what other grants or awards have you received or applied for?
- how will you measure your success?
As with most interview advice out there — it is also good to have questions for the grant administrators. Here are some example questions in the form of “if our grant is successful/awarded…”
- is there anything in our application you’d like further information about or something you may have assumptions about that I can clarify?
- would you be willing to have our team share and promote your organization online and to our partners/clients?
- who is the key point of contact with your organization we will work with?
- are there any other areas/subjects you would like us to explore as we work with your grant funds?
5. Plan Out How and Who Will Be Reporting Back
As mentioned before, with free money there are always caveats. Most grant administrators require some sort of report-back process and have a deadline that needs to be met.
Of course, always meet that deadline — otherwise, you may forfeit any future funding from this organization or their partners/contributors.
Secondly, as you work through the grant money, make sure you know what the report back process is before you spend anything. Here are some reminders on this:
- create a file or records system for the grant money that all records can be sent or stored in, so when you need it — everything is in the right place (correspondence, receipts, manuals, application, etc.)
- assign a key person to capture and organize all grant money use and impacts, and make sure to forward all grant items to them
- draft the report-back document shell/template and start working on it periodically throughout the year
- capture pictures and images of the impact of the grant — even if it’s smiling faces of people in your office, to the physically-built items — pictures are extremely valuable and highly encouraged!
- set calendar reminders now in your organization so 1 month from the reporting deadline you are reminded to finish the draft
- make sure your report back content matches your application goals. You can’t change lanes mid-year with grants and if you need to, you have to contact the grant organization and obtain their consent — otherwise, you may be on the hook to return your grant $!
6. Follow the Rules
I can’t say this enough. Follow the instructions in the application as well as all grant correspondence perfectly. Read it three times to make sure you understand it.
- Word limit? Stay within it, with a little room to buffer.
- Attachments required? Add them in and make them perfect, from the naming conventions to the file format.
- Disclosing budget/financials? Give more than less, and add notes of explanations to anything that looks strange or isn’t easily interpretable.
- Deadline? Don’t you even think about missing it! Submit it as early as possible and if you like to submit things on the last day, you best believe the admin staff handing your application are moaning as their inbox fills up at 4:45 PM. They probably have other things going on than just grant applications, right?
- Signatures required? Print, sign and scan in or even offer two versions of your application — one with the real signature or e-sign. Do not leave it blank because you haven’t figured out Adobe yet — why would someone want to give you thousands of dollars if you can’t figure out how to submit a signed document properly?
- References? Make sure they are prepped and ready and not caught off guard when the grant administrator calls to check them.
Lastly, one extra piece of advice is to keep your application concise, friendly and positive. The tone of your application can be felt throughout the entire process — so when you email or submit — be nice. Don’t speak negatively about anything in an application. When you are invited to present, be pleasant and flexible about schedules and thank everyone for the opportunity on your way in and way out.
As the old saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers” — I’d like to share my own: “Grant applicants shouldn’t be greedy, grouchy or ungrateful.”
Good luck out there, and I wish you all the best of success on your projects and purpose. Lots of good people and organizations are out there making funds available for the right reasons and I hope with these tips, you can find yours.